Twitter Lifted Its Ban On COVID Misinformation – Research Shows This Is A Grave Risk To Public Health


Researchers and public health professionals are deeply concerned about the potential effects of Twitter’s decision to no longer enforce its COVID-19 misleading policy, which was covertly posted on the website’s rules page and listed as effective Nov. 23, 2022.

Misinformation about health is nothing new. The false information on a once-supposed but now debunked connection between autism and the MMR vaccine, which was based on a bogus study released in 1998, is a classic example. Such false information has serious negative effects on public health. In the latter half of the 20th century, for instance, pertussis was more prevalent in nations with stronger anti-diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) movements.

Reducing content moderation, in my opinion as a researcher who focuses on social media, is a huge step in the wrong direction, particularly in view of the challenging task social media platforms confront in battling misinformation and disinformation. And in the fight against medical deception, the stakes are particularly high.

Social media misinformation

  • The misinformation that circulates on social media differs from earlier forms in three important ways.
  • First, social media makes it possible for false information to propagate much more quickly, widely, and extensively.
  • Second, spectacular information that appeals to emotions has a higher chance of becoming viral on social media, which makes it simpler for lies to spread than the truth.
  • Third, digital platforms like Twitter curate, assemble, and promote content in a gatekeeping capacity. This implies that false information about sensitive subjects like vaccines can easily become popular.

The World Health Organization has named the transmission of false information during the pandemic an infodemic. There is strong evidence that disinformation on social media about COVID-19 lowers vaccination rates. Public health professionals have issued a warning that false information on social media substantially impedes the development of herd immunity and erodes society’s capacity to respond to novel COVID-19 variations.

Social media misinformation feeds widespread scepticism about the safety of vaccines. Studies demonstrate that scepticism about the COVID-19 vaccine is motivated by a misunderstanding of herd immunity and a conviction in conspiracies.

Fighting false information

The content moderation guidelines and attitudes of social media platforms toward misinformation are essential for combatting misinformation. Algorithmic content curation and recommendation are likely to increase the spread of misinformation by enhancing echo chamber effects, such as exacerbating partisan differences in exposure to content, in the absence of strict content moderation policies on Twitter. Additionally, racial disparities in vaccine uptake and global healthcare disparities could be made worse by algorithmic bias in recommendation systems.

There is evidence that some less regulated sites, like Gab, can promote COVID-19 misinformation and amplify the influence of shady sources. There is evidence that the ecology of disinformation can persuade users of social media sites that make an investment in content moderation to accept misinformation that comes from less-moderated sites.

The risk is that such poisonous speech may not just increase on Twitter but also spread to other internet platforms that may be making investments in battling medical misinformation.

The COVID-19 vaccine monitor from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that there has been a considerable decline in public confidence in COVID-19 information coming from reliable sources like governments. For instance, between December 2020 and October 2022, the proportion of Republicans who said they trusted the Food and Drug Administration dropped from 62% to 43%.

The following guidelines for social media platforms’ content moderation practises were established in a 2021 U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory:

  • Pay close attention to how recommendation systems are constructed.
  • Give priority to early mistaken information detection.
  • Exaggerate data from reliable internet health information sources.

To fulfil these concerns, best practise guidelines must be developed in collaboration with social media platforms and healthcare institutions. Effective content moderation rules require preparation and funding to create and implement.

Given what researchers know about COVID-19 misinformation on Twitter, I find the company’s announcement that it will no longer block misinformation about the disease to be, to put it mildly, troubling.

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